Wednesday 20 January 2021

Shots all round: "About Some Meaningless Events"

Time for some cinematic archaeology. Shot around Casablanca in 1974, About Some Meaningless Events suggests the Moroccan film industry of the Seventies was already all over a strain of self-reflexive cinema that Iranian filmmakers would only start to receive acclaim for in the Eighties and Nineties. The bulk of the activity documented here unfolds in a dockside bar, where we're invited to sit back and soak up the ambience. There is a good deal of it to soak up, all told: mumbled, sullen or outright tetchy conversations between young cineastes and other patrons, which sometimes degenerate into fisticuffs (one dockworker ominously breaches the frame clutching a stevedore's hook); vast plumes of cigarette smoke; the fashions and the abundant hair; the jazzy music, punctuated and overlaid by those phlegmy smoker's coughs that were a commonplace in 1970s watering holes. Then a voice - the voice of director Mustafa Derkaoui, a bespectacled, professorial type suggestive of a Maghreb Godard, either being or playing himself - calls cut, and the scene gets rearranged with new actors and extras. The stage is set for a commingling of reality and artifice, rubbing shoulders and sometimes rubbing one another up the wrong way in the manner of the bar's actual and planted boozehounds. When Derkaoui relocates to Casablanca's bustling thoroughfares, it's to conduct Jean Rouch-like vox pops with passers-by about the state of Moroccan cinema as it was in 1974. The general consensus is that directors need to err on the side of realism, and address those issues then facing the Moroccan public. Yet the camera keeps being drawn to a young man with a low-key, somewhat harried charisma and a prodigious afro who appears on the fringes of several conversations. Within narrow dimensions - 76 minutes, a four-by-three frame - Derkaoui opens a sketchbook and begins to outline a vision for a cinema that was then in the process of reinventing itself, that still hadn't come together yet. That kid, this camera senses, might be the missing piece, or a missing piece.

He first claims to be a teacher, though he's surely too youthful to retain much in the way of authority, and he has nothing to say about the state of Moroccan cinema. (Certainly not by comparison with his fellow citizens, drawn by the novelty of appearing on camera and arguing their corner.) He has a story, however, though it takes a while - and a renewed level of attention on director and film's part - to tease it out. Those taproom scenes are where Derkaoui starts to sketch a methodology, full of barflies getting between camera and speaker, buzzing with wasted energy - arguments, drinking, punch-ups, attempts at seduction. (The movie becomes ultra-Seventies whenever a female catches the crew's eye: you can very quickly deduce the limited place of women in this film industry at this time.) Both film and filmmaker need to tear themselves away from this dead end, compelling though it is. Around the halfway mark, Derkaoui reassembles his crew on a rooftop to talk through the implications of telling this story (Medium Cool, a previous hybrid of fiction and vérité, is cited in passing), and matters will conclude with a side-by-side conversation on a doorstep between the director and the kid. Making a movie, Derkaoui insists, is a matter of finding a subject, clearing a space for them, and then giving them your fullest attention. As a manifesto, About Some Meaningless Events retains the sensual pleasures that follow from having been shot on film and on location, but even in this restoration, it's a little rough-edged. Makhmalbaf (senior and junior) and Kiarostami would further refine Derkaoui's technique, whittling out quietly profound works of art over subsequent decades, where Derkaoui himself was laying bare his workings, showing how a film - and an industry - might keep itself honest. Did his investigations ultimately bear fruit? They were hardly permitted to: after a single screening at the 1975 Paris Film Festival, About Some Meaningless Events was suppressed by the Moroccan authorities. I'm tempted to answer that question with one Derkaoui is heard asking the man on the street in those early vox pops: when did you last see a Moroccan film? Time for the filmmaker's descendants to hit the streets again, perhaps.

About Some Meaningless Events is now streaming via MUBI.

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